The Boston Red Sox have one of the greatest postseason hitters of all time on their side in the person of David Ortiz. On most of the days they're playing in October, that's an advantage.
But not so much now with the World Series ready to get underway on Wednesday. Not as long as the St. Louis Cardinals are trotting out maybe the greatest postseason hitter of all time.
The Red Sox are about to come face to face with Carlos Beltran in the Fall Classic. He owns a 1.173 OPS in 45 career postseason games and has been up to his usual tricks so far in this October. In 11 games, he has compiled a .921 OPS and has driven in 12 runs.
Heading into the World Series, Beltran knows his opponent well.
“I watch baseball,” he told Scott Miller of CBSSports.com. “This is what I do for a living. I watch baseball, and I watch the World Series. When we were playing the Dodgers, I watched Detroit and Boston play.
He added: “I like to see what guys are doing, how they're pitching guys.”
So Beltran isn't just a great player. He's also a studious one. Take note, kids.
Fortunately for the Red Sox, that doesn't mean Beltran is invincible. If they approach him with the right kind of game plan in the World Series, they should do alright.
Based on Beltran's habits, the right kind of game plan consists of the following.
Stick to the Safe Havens Inside the Strike Zone
In a perfect world, the Red Sox will hold Beltran hitless in the World Series, the Cardinals offense will crumble around him and everyone wearing Boston colors will live happily ever after.
But since this isn't a perfect world, that won't happen. Beltran is going to get his hits. The best the Red Sox can do is minimize the odds of his hits being loud hits.
There are ways for them to do that. Beltran has shown with his .195 ISO (Isolated Power) in the regular season and his .282 ISO in the postseason that he still has good pop in his old age, but there are areas in the strike zone where his power is less likely to show up.
Here's where Brooks Baseball can help us out (and not for the last time in this piece). When Beltran has hit left-handed against right-handed pitchers in 2013, his ISO profile shows that he hasn't tended to hit for much power on pitches on the outer third of the plate.
I can't re-post the site's graphic here, but I can recreate it. So here it is, recreated:
|Carlos Beltran ISO Zone as LHB vs. RHP|
The Red Sox should consider the inner third of the plate a no-fly zone against Beltran when he's batting lefty, as he can hit for power on inside pitches whether they're up in the zone, in the middle of the zone or down in the zone. Anything over the middle of the plate is also risky (such things usually are).
But Beltran's power basically hasn't existed on the outer third of the plate, and that's not surprising. Lefty hitters typically have to resort to opposite-field power on outside pitches, and Beltran doesn't have much of that these days. Per FanGraphs, he hit only one home run and five doubles to left field as a lefty hitter all season.
Switch Beltran around to the right side, however, and the picture changes. As a righty batter against lefty pitchers, his power dries up on the inside part of the plate:
|Carlos Beltran ISO Zone as RHB vs. LHP|
Much of the damage Beltran did as a right-handed hitter in the regular season was to his pull side. He had 11-extra base hits to his pull side as a righty hitter, compared to five up the middle of the field and none to right field.
But he wasn't doing damage to his pull side by turning on inside pitches. He was doing it by getting his arms extended. Lefty pitchers who pound him on the inside part of the plate can clearly succeed in taking away his ability to do that.
So for Red Sox pitchers looking to keep from getting burned, lefties should pound Beltran inside and righties should pound him away. As long as they don't miss their spots, everything should be cool.
Now then, about the first pitch...
First-Pitch Fastballs Should Be Safe
Anyone who's bothered to look might have noticed that Beltran has become less patient in recent years.
Don't worry. If you haven't looked, I'll tell you all about it. I was just trying to get your attention.
According to Baseball-Reference.com, Beltran saw 3.87 pitches per plate appearance and swung at the first pitch only 22 percent of the time between 2004 and 2011. Not surprisingly, he walked in more than 10 percent of his plate appearances each year except 2005.
But in the last two years, Beltran has switched it up. Combined between 2012 and 2013, he's seen only 3.64 pitches per plate appearance. That has much to do with the fact that he's swung at the first pitch 29 percent of the time.
He's developed a good excuse to do so. Per Baseball-Reference.com, only nine players (minimum 150 plate appearances) have tallied a higher OPS than Beltran when swinging at the first pitch over the last two years.
In 2012, Beltran's first-pitch damage was done primarily against hard stuff. Per Brooks Baseball, he had a .417 average and a .396 ISO on first-pitch four-seamers, sinkers and cutters.
But in 2013, things have been different. Like so:
|Carlos Beltran vs. First-Pitch Types|
Beltran has done well against hard pitches on the first pitch, but not quite as well as he has against first-pitch breaking and off-speed offerings. It's worth noting that he's seen a few more first-pitch breaking balls this season, so this would appear to be him having made an adjustment to pitchers pitching him backward.
However, Beltran's numbers against first-pitch hard offerings are misleading. He's hit .600 with a .600 ISO against first-pitch cutters. Take those out of the equation, and he's hit .280 with a .180 ISO against first-pitch four-seamers and sinkers.
Those aren't bad numbers, but they're not the kind of numbers that make you tremble in your boots. That will do for incentive for Red Sox pitchers to go right after Beltran with first-pitch heaters.
More incentive? Very well then.
Of all the first-pitch offerings Beltran has seen, Brooks Baseball says he's swung at only 25.95 percent of four-seamers and 20.90 percent of sinkers. Against first-pitch changeups, sliders, curveballs and cutters, he's swung at least 30 percent of the time.
Red Sox pitchers should definitely consider Beltran dangerous on the first pitch. But they know that he's not as likely to swing at first-pitch heaters and that he's not as likely to do damage against them.
Basically, a first-pitch heater against Beltran could well result in a quick strike or an easy out. These possibilities make it worth Boston's pitchers' while to challenge Beltran right out of the gate.
Getting ahead will be particularly important for Boston's right-handers. For if they're able to get to two strikes on Beltran, he shouldn't be very hard to finish off.
Provided they go about doing it the right way, that is.
Attacking Lefty-Hitting Beltran with Two Strikes
Beltran's undeniably more dangerous as a left-handed hitter at this juncture. His OPS as a lefty batter in the regular season was 142 points higher than his OPS as a righty batter, and both of his home runs this postseason have come from the left side of the plate.
But few hitters are dangerous with two strikes on them. To this end, even the lefty-hitting Beltran is no different.
So long as the right pitch is thrown, of course.
Whereas Beltran isn't much of a threat against first-pitch hard stuff, it's against hard stuff on two strikes that he's done the bulk of his damage as a lefty hitter. Per Brooks Baseball:
|Carlos Beltran vs. RH Pitches with 2 Strikes|
He has run into a couple of extra-base hits on two-strike breaking balls from right-handers, but not many hits in general. Against two-strike off-speed stuff, he's run into neither many hits nor extra-base hits.
One guy who shouldn't need to be told to abide by this information is John Lackey. He throws both a curveball and a slider, and Brooks Baseball can vouch that he doesn't mind using them with two strikes on lefty hitters. Over 40 percent of the two-strike pitches he's thrown to lefties this year have been breaking balls, and on those he's allowed only 11 hits.
But Clay Buchholz and Jake Peavy should have this information in mind should they get to two strikes on Beltran. They do things a little differently than Lackey—and not in an ideal way in this case.
Per Brooks Baseball, about 70 percent of the two-strike pitches Buchholz has thrown to lefty batters this season have been either four-seamers, two-seamers or cutters. Peavy's operated much the same way, throwing about 65 percent four-seamers, two-seamers and cutters to lefty hitters in two-strike counts.
If they do that against Beltran in two-strike counts, they'll be doing him a favor. Showing him breaking and off-speed stuff is the way to go, even if the count is 3-2. Knowing what he tends to do in October, the Red Sox are better off walking Beltran on well-intentioned slow pitches than they are giving him something he can hit.
As for how the key lefty pitchers on the Red Sox should attack Beltran, that part's easy.
Jon Lester and Craig Breslow Should Let the Cutters Fly
Statistically, Beltran was a dangerous hitter against cutters in 2013.
That's according to the pitch values over at FanGraphs, anyway. He notched 3.5 cutter runs above average this season, tying him for 13th among qualified hitters.
The catch, however, is that the bulk of this damage was done against cutters from right-handed pitchers. Against cutters from left-handed pitchers, Beltran hardly did anything.
Here's the Brooks Baseball testimonial:
|Carlos Beltran vs. Cutters|
|Split||Seen||Swing %||Foul/Swing %||AVG||ISO|
Throughout the year, Beltran has had a very hard time laying off lefty cutters, but the bulk of his hacks at them have resulted in foul balls. Which, in most cases, are obviously strikes. When Beltran has managed to put them in play, not much good has happened for him.
Granted, we're talking about a pretty small sample size here. But this is in keeping with a trend that's been going on for a while now.
Ever since 2007, Beltran owns a .186 average and five extra-base hits against left-handed cutters, according to Brooks Baseball. That's compared to a .310 average and 14 extra-base hits against right-handed cutters. He just plain doesn't hit lefty cutters as well.
This is information that two Red Sox southpaws, Jon Lester and Craig Breslow, should be able to use.
Lester's cutter is one of his primary pitches, and it's one he doesn't mind using against right-handed batters. Per Brooks Baseball, close to 25 percent of the pitches Lester has thrown to righty hitters this year have been cutters.
As for Breslow, he's pretty much been the same way. Close to 25 percent of his own pitches to right-handed batters this season have been cutters.
Better yet is the fact that Lester and Breslow don't mess around with the location of their cutters against righty hitters. Lester has tended to put his on the inside part of the plate and just off the inside part of the plate. Breslow can do that too, though he's mainly used his cutter more like a back-foot slider against right-handed hitters. That's proved to be a useful way of getting swings and misses.
In short, Lester's and Breslow's cutters give them a perfect means to attack Beltran as a right-handed hitter. Lefty cutters are pitches he doesn't like, and Lester and Breslow can use their cutters to exploit Beltran's weakness against anything inside when he's batting right-handed.
The Red Sox shutting Beltran down in the World Series will have to be a collaborative effort, and a complicated one at that. But as long as Boston pitchers abide by the blueprint, they should be able to knock Beltran down a few pegs in that whole "greatest postseason hitters of all time" discussion.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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